Driven by a desire to create games that come alive and resonate with players, Vladimir Funtikov co-founded Tallinn-based Creative Mobile, and after only four years, it became one of the largest mobile gaming companies in Northern Europe. His passion for games began with his first PC, and almost immediately, he started creating games, beginning with basic Warcraft and SimCity scenarios, then moving to single-player levels for Duke Nukem 3D, and eventually making multi-player maps for Counter-Strike.
He is delighted when he hears of players enjoying his games: “On one of my Counter-Strike maps, I placed a catchy music loop near a camping spot. Later, I heard a player tell how he overheard another guy hum a song at an LAN party, recognized the music, and went to the spot and killed him. They both had a good laugh afterwards. Words can’t describe how I enjoyed hearing this story.”
For four years, Funtikov produced content and managed communities for Counter-Strike without realizing this could be a real career, so he decided instead to become a software developer. But the first company where he interviewed was doing post-production for games, and immediately he was developing games again.
Taking a Risk
Funtikov grew up surrounded by the entrepreneurial spirit as he witnessed his parents start a small family business; as a result, he had always been interested in starting something of his own. Also influenced by Paul Graham’s essays describing life in a start-up from a perspective he could relate to, he knew that it was just a matter of time. In 2008, hit with a personal crisis when he lost his job, he recognized the right time came to take a huge risk. The result was the founding of Creative Mobile.
He had no illusions that his business would instantly change the world. Rather, he began with the hope of making life a little better for one person; then he would plan for the next five or ten people. Starting a free software company gave him that opportunity.
A Bumpy Road
Though he felt it was the right time, Creative Mobile initially had a difficult beginning. Funtikov admits, “Frankly, the games just weren’t good enough. We didn’t have any innovative vision, brilliant game ideas, great technology, or stunning artwork.” However, they did have enthusiasm and dedication, the qualities they used to figure out the business.
Another major difficulty they encountered resulted from the fact that Android was simply too small. At that time, it consisted of a promising OS with only a handful of devices on the market. In addition, monetizing the audience was almost impossible with no in-app purchases or reliable ad inventory.
When Creative Mobile did release its first breakthrough game, they faced new problems. Funtikov relates, “Our main strategy was to work really long shifts and pray nothing breaks while we sleep!” Growing the company proved to be a challenge, with skepticism from potential employees and local media not taking them seriously. He remembers, “One of the first articles to appear in the Estonian press poked fun at our small office and relaxed culture and dismissed our business model as irrelevant.”
But the employees who came on-board during this period were some of the most entrepreneurial and forward-thinking, helping to preserve the team’s values while it grew ten-fold over the next few years. Funtikov emphasizes how lucky he feels to have built the company with this group.
A Community Focus
Convinced from the beginning that game community is critical, the studio established forums and pages in social networks where players could talk to Creative Mobile and among themselves. The goal is to ensure that every complaint and feature request reaches the production team. Although challenging, it was also rewarding to create a system that could process hundreds of messages every day. Now the community guides them in determining the new features to create, and when something breaks, they often know within minutes.
Funtikov notes that to support a community, “It is absolutely essential to establish a ticket management system to avoid being swamped with messages and to make sure everything is tracked and responded to.” Creative Mobile also uses third-party software to manage such things as newsletters and polls, but they have discovered supporting the community is more about people than tools. He insists, “It is very important to have the right attitude in the team and respect the players no matter what their LTV is and what kind of language they use to communicate with us.”
Some Friendly Advice
For indie developers creating for the Android market, Funtikov offers this advice: “Play to the strengths of the platform by launching early and iterating a lot. Google Play offers great tools for beta-testing, processing user feedback, as well as for assessing the stability and robustness of an app almost in real time. There are powerful analytics integrated with Google Play and solutions for multi-player, cloud storage, and social features that are free to use and reduce time to market. Finally, there is no review process at submission stage. Although players always expect top quality, it doesn’t hurt to be in soft launch mode as long as you need to validate the concept and the business model to ensure you are working on the right thing.”
The biggest challenge he sees facing game developers today is working in the now mature games market, where customers want quality, games rarely succeed without marketing, and being featured has far less long-term impact. Responding to this condition requires making more focused games and aiming to understand and fully satisfy a specific audience to achieve a higher LTV.
At Creative Mobile, new tools such as all sorts of smartwatches, VR headsets, and microconsoles are spread over the office, but they rarely make new devices and platforms their top priority. First, they investigate whether there is sufficient demand from their players. If customers don’t want this game on their watches or on 3D, it is better to put the emphasis elsewhere. The greatest mobile games deliver on their promises through great game design, top-notch production, and well-designed UI. Funtikov insists, “New technology can make a good game better, but it can’t make a mediocre game great.”
He tells us the future of Creative Mobile will bring “better games and lots of annoying photos of our new, ultra-cool office.”
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.